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As a proud toddler parent and someone who loves to learn about child development, I was ecstatic to come across the Instagram page, Big Little Feelings during the pandemic. Child therapist Deena Margolin and parent coach Kristen Gallant joined forces to bring this page to life. Margolin is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) whose practice specializes in helping children ages one through six. Margolin focuses on mindfulness, mindsight and interpersonal neurobiology.
Gallant studied maternal child education at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University before co-founding Big Little Feelings. She has worked with special-needs children in places like Thailand, and in underserved communities here in the U.S. She has worked as a professional parent coach for more than a decade.
In addition to creating content for Big Little Feelings on social media, the duo also created a digital course to empower parents and caregivers with practical tips and life hacks. I sat down with the childhood friends to discuss how they reached one million followers in 10 months, and how you can grow your community.
Start by telling us how the two of you met.
Deena Margolin: We actually met in high school. We played softball together and we couldn’t have been more different. I was super academic, I was studying all the time, very regimented. Kristen was a little bit more of a rebel, didn’t really go to class, super laid back.
Kristen Gallant: Sorry, mom.
Margolin: We hit it off though and became best friends.
I love that. What made the two of you come up with this idea to start Big Little Feelings?
Gallant: We had this idea of what Big Little Feelings is: a community of parents of toddlers where we provide tips and strategies for real life problems — not those big vague ideas, but really like day-to-day problems — and an online course, which is like a toddler manual. We really had those two zoned-in ideas from the start.
It came from a really organic space, which was when I was a mom of two toddlers and I found toddlerhood to be incredibly challenging. I read every single pregnancy book, every single pregnancy page I was following it, baby book, baby page, baby app. And then I felt like once you got to the toddler age, once they turn one and they start talking and they start having tantrums, it was just like, “Here you go, good luck. Raise a great human.”
And I found myself texting Deena because she’s my best friend and she’s this great child therapist. She had her own child therapy practice. So once Lulu, my oldest, hit the toddler stage, I was texting her all day long, just like about potty problems, about the pacifier. How do you take it away?
At the same time, I was the Instagram mom. When I had my first baby, I was the first one [in my friend group] to have babies. So, I needed the mom community, and Instagram was where I went. What I saw was really, really clean houses and moms wearing their makeup, and they had the selfie light and these perfect crafts. Long story short, nobody looked like me. Nobody sounded like me. I like to swear, I’m wearing a mom bun, I’m covered in spit-up. My house is a dumpster fire. And I was just like, wow, I must be a really shitty mom. Honestly, I must just be really not cut out for this.
When we had this idea, we wanted to create this space where you could go to at the end of a really tough day if you need some helpful advice, maybe you want to celebrate a win. Maybe you want to ask a really honest question and have no judgment and no shame attached to the answer, Instagram filter-free, where perfection is not a requirement to be a part of this community.
People often fall into the compare-and-despair trap, and they’re comparing themselves to people’s lives that aren’t real. I think it’s so healthy that you share what you share. What was the first step that you took to get all of this off the ground?
Margolin: In late 2019, we started to kind of kick the idea around and we’re like, “Okay, we see what we want to create. It’s clearly missing, we need it.” I would say our first real step was doing a writing retreat where we left our families for three days, rented a house and just saw our vision and brain dumped together. We just let ourselves dream up what we want to say, who we want to talk to and we kept coming back to something over and over while doing that, which was we want this page, we want this course to be real and authentic, our full selves.
We want to show the beautiful mess and chaos that parenting and toddler really is. And at the same time, we wanted to bring in practical tips and gameplans that are backed in research in all my years of being a child therapist, working with parents and families, but so practical that you can put it into action today. So when you’re exhausted, it’s 6:30 p.m., and your kid is refusing that time, you have a plan. You know what to do. You know what to say, you feel empowered.
How did you lay out your course?
Gallant: Our goal with this course was to create a toddler manual, and within that one course is everything you could possibly need from ages one to six. Throughout the whole course we cover overarching things like tantrums, accepting feelings in order to get emotional resiliency, lots of that stuff from the psychotherapy side. And then also [we added] truly an index of every single toddler problem that you could possibly think of.
When I was in it, I was just thinking, “What if I could just pop up something, a two to 10-minute long video about bath time? Because that’s what I’m struggling with today. What if I could pop up something about eating? Hey, we’re struggling with eating, let’s get to eating, let’s do potty, let’s do bath time, bedtime, leaving the park, you name it, pacifiers.”
We put it all in order in a quick index.
Tell me about the community that you’ve created.
Gallant: Really what we created was this community of parents, honestly, and what we’re really proud of is not only how quickly we grew this community, getting a million followers in one year.
What we’re more proud of is how diverse our community is. We have parents from all kinds of socioeconomic, religious, racial backgrounds, but then we have two-mom houses, two-dad houses, non-binary parents, we have grandparents, we have nannies, we have single parents, we have working parents, stay-at-home parents.
What advice do you want to share with other entrepreneurs who are trying to grow their communities?
Gallant: Always put the one person first. Whether we had 500 followers, whether we had a thousand followers, we were never like, “All right, this is fine, but what can we sell? How many courses can we sell? What can we get out of them? How do I get to 20,000? Let me hire this person so I can get to 20,000.”
It’s not about you and it’s not about your product. It’s about that one person and that thousand people and then those million people. What does that mom, dad, grandma, nana, what do they need? And then creating something for them.
Kristen, that is such valuable advice. Deena, I want to send this back to you. What advice do you have then for caregivers who are with a toddler or multiple toddlers at this moment in time?
Margolin: Don’t expect yourself to be perfect. Especially during this whole pandemic, as parents and caregivers, we’ve had to play so many roles all at once. We’re moms, dads, teachers, bosses, coaches, friends. I mean it’s a lot to do. It’s so much.
So mindset shift to understanding it’s not always going to be perfect and that is normal, that is healthy. It’s okay to not be okay all the time, and we just do our best. At the same time, I think carving out some self-care time, some “me” time to really restore and take care of yourself, which as a new mom I struggle with this. It is so hard for me to find time to put myself first. Yet even those five, 10 minutes are just so important to being able to get back in there and be a patient parent.
Gallant: Could we just normalize working-at-home as parents in a pandemic? Let’s all just stop pretending that our toddlers are not going to burst into the door. And let’s all just not pretend like we have to put it on mute if we’re pumping at the time of Zoom calls. I think we could just normalize right off the bat, “Hey, I’m here, my toddler’s in the next room. She’s watching Sesame Street and she may come in at any moment.” When I hear somebody say that on a Zoom call, I am so relieved because I’m like, “Oh, me too. Don’t worry.”
We’re all doing it. So, let’s keep the pressure off. Sometimes when a toddler is not taking a nap and it’s exactly during the time and I’m stressing and I’m sweating and you know what, we’re all doing it. We’re all going to do it, so it’s okay.